Let’s be honest: The bar is low for a novel by a member of Congress. One feels grateful if the book doesn’t commit a crime or humiliate itself in a public restroom.
So it’s an unexpected delight to find “The Global War on Morris,” a political satire by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), so spirited and funny. Yes, as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Israel presided over his party’s drubbing last month, but if the new Republican majority dismantles Obamacare, at least he can remind us that laughter is the best medicine.
Israel’s debut novel lambastes the George W. Bush administration for perverting the battle against terrorism into an elaborate assault on civil rights here at home. In the pages of “The Global War on Morris,” the president himself stays mostly offstage — not so much innocent as wholly controlled by the three stooges of political evil: Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and especially Dick Cheney.
These are, admittedly, soft, stale targets for a salvo of precision-guided gags. The administration that led us into a war “to rid this world of evil,” that torturously disavowed torture, that turned a desert upside-down to find weapons of mass disappearance — that administration didn’t leave much on the table for a satirist to exaggerate. (Yes, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy really was flagged at several airports as a possible terrorist.) Has any political cartoon ever captured the whole spectrum of Cheney’s sneer? What parody could possibly embellish Rove’s paranoia? What farce could ever hyperbolize Libby’s cynicism? But writing in the full-tilt style of Carl Hiaasen, Israel takes on those challenges, skewering his way through one gaffe after another in the fight against domestic terrorism.
Imagine “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with a soupcon of al-Qaeda. The sharpest moments in this novel of short chapters — most of them, reportedly, written on the congressman’s iPhone — take place through “the side entrance that led to the back steps that climbed to the dim corridor that brought you to the Vice President’s office.” There, at the center of a network of sycophants, Cheney stirs the cauldron of our nation’s anxieties about “terrorists, jihadists, liberals.” He whines about how soft Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gone, snickers at constitutional rights and calculates how best to manipulate the terror alert system before the Republican convention. “Don’t raise it too high,” Rove chimes in. “Has to be credible. Can’t look political.”
For more sensitive shenanigans, Israel sneaks us into “one of the underground, undisclosed, undercover outposts of a Cheney-inspired project called COG (Continuity of Government).” In the event of a nuclear attack, the vice president would stay safe in COG, “riding out the survival of the United States,” taking comfort in “the entire works of Rush Limbaugh . . . , his favorite hunting rifle, and a list of major Republican National Committee donors who would be prioritized in any search and rescue operations as the nation emerged from its apocalypse.”
What gives the novel some pointed currency is the central object of Israel’s scorn: a super-secret surveillance project of such maniacal ambition that no one would ever believe it (except for anyone who read about the PRISM initiative in The Washington Post). Israel calls it NICK — “the Network Centric Total Information Collection, Integration, Synthesis, Assessment, Dissemination, and Deployment System.” Funded with money siphoned off a dozen innocuous departments such as the Office of the Assistant Deputy Secretary for National School Lunch Programs, NICK is the “ultimate voyeur” designed to perform “investigative triage in a country on threat overload.” To NICK, “everyone was either suspicious or a suspect, a patriot or a Democrat.” After gleefully explaining how NICK reads everyone’s mail, listens to everyone’s phone calls and tracks everyone’s purchases and movements, Libby insists, “This government does not spy on the American people.”
For the next 300 pages, the ridiculousness of that lie is etched on the life of a nebbishy nobody named Morris Feldstein, a pharmaceuticals sales rep in New York. Morris’s only ambition is to watch the Mets on TV. His “entire life was tucked in the safe confines of anonymity,” Israel tells us. “If Morris clung to any life philosophy, it was ‘Don’t make waves.’ ” “The epitome of boredom,” he avoids anxiety or trouble of any kind. He has never exceeded the speed limit or a library-book due date. He’s the straightest, dullest, pleasantest man imaginable — the ideal victim for Israel’s zany comedy about a secret government bureaucracy unleashed from any moral constraints.
In a perfect storm of ineptitude, fervency and technophilia, Cheney and a vast right-wing conspiracy of competing agencies become convinced that plain-vanilla Morris is actually a diabolical money man for a group of Islamic terrorists working minimum-wage jobs around the Paradise Hotel in Boca Raton, Fla. (Yes, they’ve finally gotten to paradise, but where are their virgins?) Hassan, the head terrorist, is the towel attendant at the pool, battling the infidels all day: “He took an oath to destroy them, to annihilate them, to consume them in a wrathful, unmerciful, apocalyptic fireball. But until then, he had to keep them dry.” At night in a tiny apartment, Hassan and his fellow warriors of Allah are growing soft on American food and culture: “He had been trained to resist the ear-splitting torture of hard rock. Not Enya. . . . It’s hard to effectuate a good snarl when your lips are orange from Doritos crumbs.”
These comic scenes about terrorists plotting bloody mayhem are the novel’s biggest gamble. One wrong cut and the whole thing could blow up in his face, but Israel works fairly well in those tight quarters without giving in to ugly anti-Muslim sentiments or appearing entirely naive about the threat of Islamic terrorism. In fact, at the center of the book, in a chapter not even a page long, we hear a CNN report about “the one-thousandth American death in Iraq.” And toward the end, Israel presents a scene constructed from parallel passages of violence from the Bible and the Koran. It’s a reminder that for all its silliness and sometimes flabby comedy, there’s blood pooling in the basement of this story.
In that way, Israel is working in the battle-scarred tradition of far better war satirists such as Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Heller and even Jon Stewart, who dare to make us laugh against the grisly background of senseless death and raw grief. For Israel, though, there is a sentimental reflex resisting the gravity of despair, which is not surprising: Despair may be the only mortal sin a true politician never commits. Ultimately, Israel is too undisciplined to write a really devastating satire and too wedded to the conventions of comedy to deny his characters a happy ending — even if it is glazed in heavy sarcasm. “Sure,” he says, “there were a few times when the Feds may have inadvertently spied on the harmless phone conversations of innocent Americans. Few, as in thousands. Or hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions. No one knew. The whole matter was classified. But that was a small price to pay for freedom, wasn’t it?”
Whether you think that is funny probably depends on whether you’re “a patriot or a Democrat.”
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE GLOBAL WAR ON MORRIS
By Steve Israel
Simon & Schuster. 289 pp. $26